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  • The Allures of Forgetting in Renaissance Drama
  • William E. Engel (bio)
Memory and Forgetting in English Renaissance Drama: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster by Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. (Cambridge University Press, 2005. 184 pages. $75)

Characters in Renaissance drama often are cautioned not to forget themselves. A typical instance is Hubert's admonishment of Salisbury in King John to sheathe his sword: "I would not have you, lord, forget yourself, / Not tempt the danger of my true defense / Lest I, by marking of your rage, forget / Your worth, your greatness, and nobility" (4.3.83–86). In many respects this aspect of self-forgetting is the crux of Antony and Cleopatra, for it will take more than a "Roman thought" to keep Antony from returning to Egypt where his "pleasure lies." In the pitch of excitement characters such as Antony and Salisbury say or do things that go against their better judgment. They forget or forsake their places in the scheme of things, often with disastrous consequences. Garrett Sullivan's latest monograph is concerned with such matters, especially as they pertain to the construction of subjectivity in Shakespeare's day.

The goal of this book is to "historicize forgetting." What this means in real terms is that the author is at pains to suggest how "forgetting appears in a distinctly early modern context"—a cultural context that will change significantly with the Cartesian revolution. Renaissance forgetting generates what Sullivan argues are "certain subjective possibilities" seen as alternatives to the claims made by memory. Sullivan's self-appointed task is to indicate the extent to which this accounts for dramatists, imagining possible futures for their characters that are not identical to what social position, genre, or chronicle history finally demand of them.

The study hinges on the premise that forgetting in early modern literature and culture frequently was associated with the "resistance to or the retooling of normative models for behavior." The argument begins with a cogent consideration of memory's significance in the period and then goes on to propose a threefold taxonomy for differentiating types of memory and recollection. While this approach may have helped the author sort through the various ways memory's role was construed and represented in Renaissance thought, his insistence on using the term forgetting* (with an asterisk) is bothersome. Moreover it is not clear how these new labels achieve the author's putative aim, for, in the long run, his analysis of the plays holds up without needing to defer to them. While the definition of forgetting* provides an heuristic way to think about this special aspect of the continuum of memory and forgetting, surely there are sixteenth-century texts that provide a suitable substitute, or perhaps there is an acceptable term in contemporary neuroscience that covers this case. Forgetting* is defined by Sullivan as "a specific act that refers to the unavailability of memory traces to recollection"; while forgetfulness is used to denote "a mode of being and a pattern of behavior linked to forgetting* but [End Page xxxix] more broadly to specific somatic phenomena—lethargy, excess sleep, inordinate sexual desire."

Notwithstanding this idiosyncratic taxonomy, the ensuing analysis of the plays is sensible and, at times, stunning. Most impressive is Sullivan's sensitive reading of telling scenes from Renaissance drama that draws on his intelligent way of discussing the individual in terms of a seventeenth-century understanding of the term propriety, meaning both property and knowing one's place. Indeed throughout Sullivan stresses that memory and forgetting are "inevitably social; that they are less purely cerebral processes than modes of behavior and kinds of bodily deportment."

The first chapter, "Embodying Oblivion," charts the relationship between forgetting and theater. It examines the significance of lethargy and sleep, seen both as determinants and symptoms of "the forgetful body" in Macbeth and Hamlet, Ford's 'Tis Pity, and Webster's Duchess of Malfi. The next chapter focuses on "erotic self-forgetting" by offering a subtle reading of All's Well in terms of the play's ending as a failure to induce forgetting. In his central chapter, perhaps the strongest in terms of critical rigor, Sullivan focuses on the end in which Dr. Faustus urges the members of...


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